The north of Ireland is inexorably heading for an election following the resignation of Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and the failure of last-minute talks efforts by the two governments.
After years of disputes, the latest corruption scandal to hit Stormont in tandem with a decision by a DUP Minister to withdraw funds from Irish language education proved the breaking point. Sinn Fein has long been at the receiving end of nationalist anger over the multiple failures of the power-sharing Executive, and this week finally admitted the situation had become untenable.
Mr McGuinness has warned the DUP are living in a “fool’s paradise” if they thought they would be able to return to government with Sinn Fein after an election, if the latest scandal was not resolved. He said Sinn Fein would “not tolerate the arrogance of Arlene Foster and the DUP”.
In his resignation letter, the full text of which is included below, he wrote: “The public are demanding robust action and accountability but the DUP, in particular its leader Arlene Foster, have refused to accept this.”
It is understood the DUP lobbied the two governments and the Alliance Party during the week to postpone the calling of a snap election, but made little headway. As it stands, the election must be called no later than Monday by Britain’s governor in the north of Ireland, James Brokenshire.
Brokenshire said: “It’s important for the parties to talk together and anything that indicates a move to encourage that type of discussion I take as helpful, albeit that position does remain serious and stark.
“We are still looking at an election, but we are doing everything we can, as the two governments, to work with the political parties to see if there is a way forward that can be found”.
The current crisis came about when the DUP leader Arlene Foster refused to step aside to allow an investigation into the so-called ‘cash-for-ash’ scheme, which provides unlimited cash payouts to those insiders who had signed up while she was the responsible Minister. The scheme is expected to cost the exchequers in Belfast and London over a billion pounds between them.
When Foster accused Sinn Fein of “playing chicken” last weekend in a standoff over her position, Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGinness promptly resigned, bringing down the curtain on the troubled power-sharing coalition.
A Sinn Fein delegation met with Brokenshire this week but afterwards indicated nothing had changed, instead blaming the London and Dublin governments for the current crisis.
“We made clear that the British government’s failure to honour their agreements and imposing austerity and Brexit against the will of the people, has contributed to the undermining of the political process,” Sinn Fein’s Minister for Health Michelle O’Neill said.
“For years both governments have failed to protect, and guarantee agreements made. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, they both have responsibility for equality within their respective jurisdictions. They have singularly failed to meet those responsibilities and have allowed the DUP to block basic equality provisions for citizens in the north.
“The British government’s approach has to be tackled and that won’t happen unless the Irish government acts to hold them to account. There can be no return to the status quo and no short-term sticking plaster. There needs to be equality, partnership, and respect and both governments need to honour their responsibilities in full.”
She insisted there was no basis for a credible negotiation ahead of an election.
“The position is clear. Following the resignation of the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness we must move to an election. Sinn Fein will, as always be open to dialogue, however talks for the sake of talks will not resolve the outstanding issues.
Talks alone will not rebuild the confidence in the institutions. We need all concerned to live up to their obligations, their agreements and do the right thing by the public.”
A former special adviser to the British government has blamed the DUP for the current turmoil and said the DUP leader Arlene Foster should have resigned over the latest corruption scandal.
Kevin Meagher, who was an adviser to former British Direct Ruler Shaun Woodward, accused the former First Minister of showing “appalling hubris” in her handling of the row.
He said her involvement in the disastrous Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme “should be a clear-cut resignation issue”. Instead she was a “picture of snarling defiance, refusing to step aside while an independent investigation takes place into the scandal”.
He accepted that Sinn Fein “had absolutely no interest in trying to oust her, preferring to keep Northern Ireland’s show on the road if at all possible” but said “Foster’s unbearable arrogance in recent weeks simply made matters untenable”.
“In essence, (former deputy First Minister Martin) McGuinness fell on Foster’s sword for her in order to bring this issue to a head.”